The Charity Myth

Politicians who advocate dismantling the welfare state frequently state that the poor and destitute will not be left out in the cold. They claim that a private and religious safety net will replace the public one that exists in many industrialized countries.

To be sure, private charity is capable of helping many people and serves an important role in the non-governmental safety net.

The problem is that private charity has never, by itself, been sufficient to prevent suffering, homelessness, starvation, and poverty. Not even religious-based organizations have been able to do this. There are arguments in favor of destroying the welfare state (ones with which I do not agree), but they cannot rest on the premise that services from non-profits and religious groups will make up for the loss of state assistance.

Some – perhaps even many — people will be totally comfortable with this. “If people can’t make ends meet, if they starve, that is their problem.” Most people, though, would probably disagree, at least when it comes to children.

However, there is no evidence to indicate that a significant portion of people will provide enough voluntary largesse to support the impoverished and alleviate their suffering. There are no historical examples where wholly voluntary charity has produced a support structure that protects people in vulnerable positions. Only when contributions to a welfare system are enforced by law through taxation or by a powerful set of customs do those funds amount to enough to help the vast majority of poor people.

As I have written before, what is troubling about statements like this is not the point in itself (that some politicians will sacrifice social services) but the attempt to confuse voters about the end result (that cutting government programs has real consequences for real people). These politicians are aware of the likely outcome of their actions, but want to disguise it by claiming that other, non-existent forces or organizations will intervene. Those forces will not intervene. Private charity is a valuable part of the safety net, but in the aggregate non-profits do not have the resources to even come close to providing the services lost if public sector support disappears.

If you cut social services, the magic hands of private charity will not be strong enough or broad enough to provide for the people who lose that vital public assistance. If you think that starvation and homelessness are an acceptable outcome of your public policy choice, then be honest about it.


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